I was expecting a bit of a quiet week, and now we’re doing O2s up and down the country…” begins Big Special’s Callum Moloney. In the middle of a series of shows opening for Sleaford Mods - and precisely the opposite of a “quiet week” - the duo are currently speaking from the back of their van, hurtling down a motorway en route from Glasgow.
In what’s perhaps a perfect analogy for Big Special’s momentum-fuelled year so far, these packed out gigs landed on their plate last minute, with just a few days’ notice. “The size of the rooms…” vocalist Joe Hicklin picks up, “they’re the biggest gigs we’ve done. We were just at the Glasgow O2 [Academy], which is a big theatre room with a big balcony and stuff, and I can’t wrap my head around it to be honest.”
Capping off what Joe refers to as a “head-wobbler” of a 2023, it’s little wonder that the ‘Mods would see fit to draft in the duo for their current run. Having broken through with their fiery single ‘SHITHOUSE’ back in summer, what’s happened in the aftermath is the stuff of dreams. “This whole year,” starts Callum, “every single thing that we’ve done, we’ve been like, ‘Oh wow, that’s gonna be the highlight of the year’. And then we get another thing come through, then the next thing, and the next thing. We can’t really understand it!” “We’ve been cracking on separately for fifteen years doing music,” nods Joe, “and it’s all happened in the last ten months.”
While 2023 has seen the Midlands duo marked out as one of music’s fiercest new prospects, an overnight success story this is not. Having met at college when the pair were teenagers, they were “just drawn together immediately”, Callum confirms. “I was the biggest Joseph Hicklin fan since the moment I met him. I got his old lyrics tattooed on my leg when I was younger,” he smiles, affirming his commitment. A series of bands came and went, starting with a “six-piece funk and soul outfit” which was soon whittled down to a duo before Callum moved to Bristol for university and the two continued their endeavours apart, “separately [spending] a decade trying to make music and art”.
Then, just as Callum found himself wondering if it was time to wind down from playing in bands, Joe reached out. “In lockdown, Joe came out of nowhere and we reconnected, and he wanted to do a new project,” the drummer recalls. “I wasn’t sure; I thought it was time to call it. So I said, ‘Nah’, but then he called me back about two weeks later with the demo of ‘THIS HERE AIN’T WATER’ and I was hooked immediately. I just knew I wanted to be a part of it,” he confirms. “So, I said no initially, but I’m really glad he called me back, 'cos I wouldn’t be living my best right now.”
“I just thought if I was ever gonna change it up or experiment, it was gonna be now. - Joe Hicklin
From then on, everything for Big Special seems to have seamlessly clicked into place. The duo continued writing together through lockdown, using their separate musical experiences (Joe had spent most of the interim period as an acoustic singer-songwriter) to build out their enigmatic but potent blend of post-punk and soul. “First and foremost, we’re music fans,” Joe says, on why their sound channels such a myriad of influences. “We love loads of stuff and always have. I was doing the acoustic stuff for fifteen years, and I’d just fallen out with that structure. I’d always written poetry and stuff like that, and in lockdown, I just thought if I was ever gonna change it up or experiment, it was gonna be now.”
Focussing more on the central voice of the project, the duo’s blistering sound veers from in-your-face confrontation to stirring passion, all while delving honestly into the spectrum of every day life; whether mental health issues (‘SHITHOUSE’), the growing friction between vast swathes of society (‘THIS HERE AIN’T WATER’), or simply having to face the daily slog (‘DESPERATE BREAKFAST’). “We think it’s all important to talk about,” Joe notes, on the more working class focus that their songs naturally take. “But it’s not come from a preconceived idea. We’re not nailing it to a post, it’s about honest experience and that’s it really. We’re just fully committed to trying to be honest and brutal with that honesty.”
That honesty is translating: alongside their current run with Sleaford Mods, the band have already racked up support slots alongside the likes of Benefits and John Grant’s Creep Show, with a slew of festivals including The Great Escape and Reeperbahn under their belts, and a run of sold-out London headline shows. Next April, meanwhile, they’ll head up DIY’s own Now & Next Tour, alongside fellow Class of 2024 stars Hot Wax.
“As a band fresh out of the gates, this year’s been rolling with the punches, taking every gig we can,” Callum reflects, “and next year is mad already. I wanna try as many local delicacies across Europe as possible, see as many cities as possible, and I don’t wanna touch the ground.” He cracks a grin. “It doesn’t look like we’re gonna get a chance to.”
Big Special headline DIY’s Now and Next Tour in April 2024; get tickets here.
As featured in the December 2023 / January 2024 issue of DIY, out now.